Moving needle, leveling playing field

-A A +A
By Sherry Robinson

As I write this, House members were still nose-to-nose, haggling over the budget, and the Senate had begun the process. How is it, you might ask, that the two parties are stalled on what amounts to 1 or 2 percent of the total budget?
The education arguments by now look like deep ruts in a dirt road, the kind that wheels and water keep following because it’s difficult to do anything else. We’ve heard them in countless meetings, newspaper commentary, and legislative hearings. So I wasn’t expecting the House floor debate to be much different, and yet there were some points made that bear repeating.
House Minority Leader Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, reminded everyone that the state’s financial underpinnings are oil and gas, but hanging our hats on oil prices is precarious because the horizontal drilling and fracking that increased production here have increased production everywhere else. Supply and demand could tilt prices against us.
Employment growth in the state is inching along at 1 or 2 percent, so increasing the budget 4.8 percent doesn’t seem prudent to him.
Worthy arguments.
Bratton and his fellow Rs then said that Democrats have “owned the educational system for 50 years” and blamed the Ds because one-third of our kids don’t graduate and half of those who do need remedial work in college. That’s a stretch, folks. Ownership of those problems deserves to be spread around.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, ran the education subcommittee of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
“I called the secretary and invited her to sit with us,” Lundstrom said in floor debate. “It’s like a scrum. Everybody has their ideas, and some of the new ideas were not really discussed fully. They were not really brought forth until now.”
Lundstrom said she asked Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera how she would use the funding she sought, “and the response was, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ There’s not clear path for the funding.”
That led to charges by Dems that the administration wanted a blank check for Skandera and charges by Rs that Dems wanted a blank check for the districts. But districts don’t exactly get a blank check; all above-the-line money moves through the state’s education equalization formula, which Democratic education stalwarts adamantly defend.
The formula assures that all the state’s districts are treated fairly in budget allocations. It’s challenged from time to time (one challenger was Lundstrom’s own district), but in a state where resources can be thin, it’s been a pretty reliable way to apportion funding.
To Dems, steering money “below the line” to the Public Education Department, means skirting the funding formula. But Bratton and others argued that every administration, every education secretary, has the right to their programs. Maybe they’re successful, and maybe they’re not, but they have the right, he said.
“As a school administrator,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, “I understand the need for above the line spending, but I also see the need to move the needle.”
If I had a dime for every time somebody talked about “moving the needle,” I could buy myself a latte. “Moving the needle” has become to education what “leveling the playing field” is to business — a handy cliché that loses meaning with use.
To Republicans, moving the needle means handing more money to Skandera to invest in programs, which they fervently believe will work. To Democrats, moving the needle means early childhood education and funneling more money directly to districts.
Everybody has lofty intentions, but even the legislative process, where much gets hashed out in public, has proven resistant to compromise on this issue. Positions harden, like ruts in the road. By the time you read this, they will have crept toward an agreement or maybe high-centered. There is no easy exit.